Long: Understanding the benefits, challenges of in-house counsel

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The Indiana State Bar Association has identified in-house counsel as an underserved segment in the legal profession and has set out to identify pain points specific to their unique environment and find ways to fill those needs.

Serving our members begins with understanding who they are; it calls for listening to their needs, wants and aspirations and taking time to get to know them. In fact, members expect us to “know” them. In my role as the director of membership at the Indiana State Bar Association, I have spent the better part of the last year segmenting members by alternative demographics, such as career stage and practice environment type. Additionally, we are working with volunteer groups to better understand the highs and lows of their day-to-day lives.

The reason for identifying these segments is so that ISBA can be more strategic in creating opportunities for members to connect based on their shared goals, preferences and environment. As part of our strategic plan, the goal was to define four to six similar environments that cover 85%-90% of our membership.

Once defined, we conducted a member survey and focus groups to tease out ideas and obstacles. Out of this work, we developed personas — fictional representations of top-priority audiences, including in-house counsel, that describe their goals, needs and what keeps them up at night. Personas describe everyone, but no one in particular. But segmenting members into distinct categories and defining what drives them — and what support they need — allows our team to address their needs in a holistic way.

The appeal of going in-house

Often viewed as the organization’s moral compass — the go-to person for a myriad of legal, employment, public relations and regulatory issues — in-house counsel attorneys enjoy working as part of a team in a less competitive environment. Because they are usually able to avoid the billable hour and 60-plus-hour workweeks, they enjoy a schedule that is more conducive to their values and outside work responsibilities. In fact, nearly two-thirds of in-house counsel work hybrid schedules, according to a 2022 report from the Association of Corporate Counsel and Empsight.

In his article, “Boomers to Zoomers,” published in the May 2023 “Res Gestae” member journal, ISBA Executive Director Joe Skeel addresses the impact of generational differences on hiring and retaining qualified employees: “Many blame the pandemic for this ‘new’ workforce issue. You’ve likely heard the term ‘The Great Reassessment.’ The premise is the pandemic led many to reevaluate life’s priorities. The result is people opting out of the traditional workforce in exchange for something more conducive to their personal life.

“In reality, younger workers were prioritizing personal happiness over career advancement long before anyone ever heard of COVID. Although the pandemic most certainly led to older workers reevaluating things, it simply supercharged a trend that had been bubbling for the previous 20 years among younger generations.”

Interestingly, too, in working with associates and partners in the same way, we heard more evidence of this trend. Partners aired their frustrations over retaining younger lawyers, referring to how they’re finding that some aspire to seek in-house counsel positions almost immediately, without gaining experience first, which used to be unheard of. On the flip side, associates are open about how making partner is no longer the end-all-be-all for them; rather, prioritizing their personal happiness takes precedent.

With the typical associate-to-partner track no longer being paramount for some, it’s no surprise that the number of people interested in going in-house has increased significantly in recent years. As such, competition for those limited positions will emphasize the need for members to set themselves apart.

What keeps them up at night

In our work with in-house counsel members, they identified the following things that keep them up at night:

1. Keeping current on the law/regulatory changes.

2. Isolation from other attorneys/lack of networking opportunities.

3. Training.

Keeping current on the law/regulatory changes: Because in-house counsel attorneys represent one client on a range of matters versus one type of matter for a range of clients, they are not really afforded the opportunity to focus on one area and must cover a breadth of work. For example, in-house counsel attorneys have seen a surge in employment-related issues because of COVID.

Isolation from other attorneys/lack of networking opportunities: Transitioning from private practice to in-house counsel is a big change. Often, there is only one in-house counsel attorney on staff or a few at most, leading them to feel as though they are on an island by themselves.

Training: Most in-house positions do not offer the level of training that law firms offer. Due to the breadth of issues that in-house counsel attorneys are expected to cover, training (particularly basic programs on topics they don’t deal with every day) is harder to come by.

Lending out support

ISBA will overlay this information with programs, resources and services we already offer, allowing us to more narrowly market what we are doing to address their specific pain points. Additionally, we will be able to identify gaps and develop new ways to meet those unmet needs. This could be through CLE, resources, articles, partnerships, services, etc.

Case in point: ISBA launched its first-ever in-house counsel cohort this year. A cohort is a group of individuals that meet regularly around an educational endeavor. The cohort members are not only attendees, but they also dictate the content. Most importantly, cohorts engage, connect and help bind individuals to one another.

The yearlong program is geared toward introducing them to the primary underlying components of successful communication and leadership skills an in-house counsel needs to be a strategic partner to their organization. Utilizing the skills outlined below allows them to exert influence across the organization, including areas where there is no direct reporting relationship:

• Understanding self: An emotional intelligence foundation

Establishing and exhibiting self-awareness is the keystone of any leader’s development. Neuroscience frameworks are presented to illustrate how emotions guide our behaviors toward others.

• Understanding the environment: The role of others

Very little is able to be accomplished in an organization without the support of others. Stakeholders to any initiative may be internal or external and may have positive or negative impacts on the initiative. Using emotional intelligence is critical to understanding our audience and determining the proper communication method to move that individual, or group, to action.

• Become a strategic partner in the organization

The environment our organizations operate within are rarely stagnant, yet in many organizations, the challenge, opportunity and innovation recognition techniques are. Even in those organizations claiming they are “innovative,” historical mindsets and systems actively work to quash new initiatives. It’s important to understand the difference between strategy and planning within the organization and to illuminate the dominant logic of the organization that may be inhibiting growth.

• Developing a coaching mindset: Individual contributor to leader

When we become a leader, reality significantly changes. Where once we were evaluated on our personal accomplishments, now we are judged by the team’s success. Our ability to facilitate successful performance of others as both individuals and toward a unified goal is now the measuring stick that we are compared to. Unfortunately, if no one tells you this and resets expectations, the natural reaction is to work harder to accomplish personal objectives even though you now have new responsibilities.

This group meets quarterly in person and is facilitated by William Gulley, founder of Perpetual Development LLC and executive director of Butler University’s executive education program.

Associations largely have two things to offer: The ability to bring people together for voice, influence, camaraderie and growth, and the ability to curate information into learning opportunities. Ultimately, through programs like this and others, ISBA works to help in-house counsel be better professionals and give them a competitive edge.•


Carissa Long is the director of membership at the Indiana State Bar Association. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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